A simple fact sets Pedro Costa’s films apart from almost everything else made so far in the 21st century: friendship. Not in the chummy sense of so much recent American independent cinema, which more often than not feels like a lark, but at a deep level of personal commitment to the people that he’s filming with (his process is always one of filming with). His affection for the Straubs in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, all of the residents of Fontainhas in Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, and Colossal Youth, and now Jeanne Balibar and her collaborators in Ne Change Rien forms the basis of his approach to filmmaking; when so many directors are filming against a bottom line, whether financial or ideological, Costa’s commitment to telling personal lives as truly as he can with no bullshit is enough to make him the most important director in the world. That, alongside Godard and Straub, he’s cinema’s most rigorous thinker is only an added benefit.
There’s been a tendency in the ongoing debate about the nebulous idea of “slow cinema,“which Costa is inevitably named as one of the key purveyors of, to assert that it has eschewed montage in slavish (from the critics) or commendable (from the supporters) commitment to a Bazinian ideal. The relationship between Ne Change Rien‘s two iterations, the 2005 short and the 2009 feature, conclusively proves this to be a misreading of Costa’s films. The short, unfortunately not included on Cinema Guild’s exceptional release but readily available online, consists of three performances (two Balibar originals, “Rose"and “Ne Change Rien,“and a cover of Kris Jensen’s “Torture”), all of which appear in the feature. “Rose,“a backstage acoustic run through in the blown-out light of a dressing room opens the short, and “Torture,“rendered as a torch song even more melodramatic than Jensen’s original, closes it. These placements are reversed in the feature and the effect is critical: Where the short begins with an invitation into a private space laid bare and moves toward an image of performance, the feature begins with performance and then burrows into the process behind—or below—it, keeping us distanced in a variety of ways before finally allowing us into this unguarded space of camaraderie. Certainly the effect of ordering shots here is as great as in any film by Eisenstein. The artificial wall maintained by critics and academics between the cinema of montage and that of duration must be broken down.
Conversely, there’s also been a tendency among American critics to describe Costa’s films, and Ne Change Rien in particular, as hypnotic or trance-like, an acknowledgment of its commitment to duration that twists its humanism into shallow formalism. Like all of Costa’s films, Ne Change Rien departs from the image of a face (Jeanne Balibar’s exquisite one), which it uses to anchor a political exploration. Commending the film as a hypnotic object whitewashes its interest in labor, encouraging the viewer to coast on the aesthetic richness of the black-and-white digital photography or the repetition of Balibar’s rehearsals rather than engage with them on the level of ideas. Certainly Costa’s photography is a major achievement (only Regular Lovers and The Color Wheel match it for sheer beauty in black and white this century), but it also carries a distinct comment that has not been heard: Not only is Costa one of the few directors still content with a 4:3 frame, he remains steadfastly committed to never using more of it than is necessary to get across what he needs to in the image. Frequently this means that perhaps three-quarters or more of the screen will remain totally dark, with only the curve of Balibar’s cheek and a wisp of smoke present in the top right corner. This reinvigoration of a Val Lewton idea—which he’s refined greatly on the level of concept since his debut Blood, and perfected it in the darkened editing suite of Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?—is one of Costa’s great achievements: a revolution in economy in an era of flabbiness in filmmaking.
Likewise, Costa’s use of repetition in Ne Change Rien has nothing to do with inducing the viewer to zone out and indulge sensually. The two longest sequences, each a single shot running over 10 minutes, are images of frustration: In the first, Balibar and guitar/chief collaborator Rodolphe Burger sit with a loop taken from Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly"while the singer desperately tries to work herself into the rhythm, sounding out the same string of notes in search of an entry into the music that she can’t seem to find; in the second, the most directly Warholian sequence of Costa’s career, we watch as Balibar unravels under the demanding direction of an off-screen voice coach while practicing Offenbach’s La Périchole. In both cases, and indeed across the film, Costa’s chief interest is on Balibar’s commitment working through a process that perhaps can never be completed, there’s always the possibility that a number can be improved. This too is a galvanizing ethos in a world where politicians and corporations assure us that compromise is necessary; Balibar, like Costa, refuses to compromise, and immediately following a listen to “Ton Diable"that leaves her band and producers buzzing with excitement, she pipes in that perhaps they should try another take, that the vocals could be better.
The Warhol-Offenbach sequence, a worthy counterpart to any of the Screen Test films, works at a second crucial level by crystallizing our conception of Balibar as a performer and ourselves as spectators. Balibar’s exaggerated exasperation at her coach’s hyper-specific critiques seems as much a product of her awareness that knows her failure is being recorded as it is of the failure itself; when she finally becomes so frustrated that she turns her head downward from the camera, it’s as startling a direct moment of fear and embarrassment as Paul Swann’s retreat to the wings in Warhol’s film of him. But as with Vanda’s hacking coughs in between hits of crack in In Vanda’s Room, the effect isn’t shallow implication of the audience; it’s to confirm the real presence of the subject being filmed. As with Renoir and Simon or Ray and Bogart, this willingness of a director to allow their subject to be ugly or brutal or, here, embarrassed and angry at her failings is the height of a humanism that’s unwilling to sand off the edges.
If Costa remains one of the few directors willing to present the viewer with images of the full range of human experience, he’s also one of the few who’s unafraid of making use of the full aesthetic capabilities of the cinema in doing so. The idea and form in his films always arrive hand in hand, and so when the dress rehearsals of the Offenbach opera are shot from backstage, with only the piano and whoever is waiting in the wings shown, this isn’t simply an attempt at finding a new way to film a scene, it’s a reminder of how rarely we ever see all of what’s there in a performance. This intelligence, a thinking through of a situation that has no use for novelty and every concern for the truth, is what sets Costa apart as the only director who gives the impression of being capable of reinventing the cinema.
The dual-layer DVD crisply renders Pedro Costa's stark black-and-white digital photography; what little artifacting is present comes from the source material, and in every case is used as a well-integrated aesthetic quality. Cinema Guild happily offers both Dolby 5.1 and stereo options, the former of which perfectly captures the richness and subtleties of the performances, particularly in the studio where there's always a bit happening in the background.
Cinema Guild once again proves to be well ahead of every other theatrical distributor in the United States when it comes to home-video presentation. Chief among the extras is Costa's 2003 short The End of a Love Affair, a very Straubian study in light and music that in its sustained portrait of longing offers another angle on the feature's Warholian Offenbach scene. Also included: three additional performances; a selection of Balibar's "Tronomettes," sparse compositions for voice and metronome; a U.S. trailer and, interestingly, four-minute European TV spots which, while nothing more than curious, offer an insight into how the film was marketed abroad; and a booklet featuring a brief, illuminating account of the film's history from Costa himself, which is essential if for nothing other than the list of his and Balibar's shared passions.
Pedro Costa's latest study in life and work, the finest film of 2009, gets a fittingly rich treatment from Cinema Guild.